Unprecedented Parity in the First Round

The NFL is often cited as having tremendous parity – any team can rise up and make the playoffs, and once in the playoffs, any team can win the Super Bowl. Multiple teams who entered with the lowest seed in their conference have won a title. This high variance is one factor in the NFL’s staggering popularity.

The NBA, on the other hand, has been largely a haves and have-nots league. Four to six teams with the best players will load up and make runs for the title, a roughly equal number will tank completely in hopes of securing a high draft pick (and one of the few elite talents that can help them reach the top), and everyone else kind of lingers in the middle. At the beginning of the season one can guess with at least 75% accuracy which teams will make the playoffs and which won’t.

Once in the playoffs, the top four seeds (the top two in each conference) usually advance to the 2nd round. Between 2004 and 2013 (the last 10 playoffs) the top 2 seeds in each conference have all advanced to the 2nd round in 6 of the 10 years. In the other 4 years, 3 of the top seeds have advanced. The exceptions are three notable Western Conference upsets and the Chicago-Philadelphia series of 2012 in which Derrick Rose suffered his knee injury, allowing the 76ers to slip into the 2nd round as an 8-seed.

Not once in the past 10 years have two of the top teams lost in the 1st round. The reasons for this are fairly obvious: the higher seed generally won about 15-20 more games than their opponent during the regular season, and they have homecourt advantage. It is very difficult to take down a better team over 7 games when you have to go on the road and steal a win.

This season’s 1st round has the potential to be different. Two teams – the Atlanta Hawks and Memphis Grizzlies – are up 3-2 heading home against higher seeded opponents, and a third – the Dallas Mavericks – is tied 2-2.

Each of these teams has gotten to this point in a different way. Atlanta has spread the floor with shooting at every position to bother Roy Hibbert thanks to the flexibility of Paul Millsap and Pero Antic, and they are raining threes from all over (including a 30-foot bomb by Kyle Korver in Game 5). Memphis has finally managed to open up enough spacing for their offense while still having Tony Allen on the floor to hound Kevin Durant thanks to the addition of wing shooters like Courtney Lee. Dallas is using Dirk Nowitzki’s high post game to open up their offense, and they have unleashed a variety of defensive tactics to slow down the high-powered San Antonio offense.

One or more of these teams can still lose their series. In fact, it should be considered likely that at least one will. If two of them sneak through to the 2nd round it will still be a highly unlikely event, and will shake up the race to the Finals. As NBA offenses shift to shooting more threes, a high variance shot, upsets will become more likely, and will introduce a kind of parity and uncertainty that the league has never seen. It should be fun.